Living with Toxicity: Ambiguous Loss & Grief

After having recently shared my autobiography for the tenth time with a group of resident chaplains, I was struck by how something that is so familiar (one's own life history) can at the same time feel so foreign, how the collection of names and dates and information can fail to tell the story even as one attempts to share it. Even as I attempted to disclose I was also obscuring the very thing I most wanted to communicate. I wondered—afterwards, of course—what it was about this particular telling that felt different and uniquely unsatisfying. While I am sure there are a number of reasons, the one that I keep coming back around to is how profoundly difficult it is to take the broken shards of the life one expected and to rearrange them to create a meaningful and paradoxically coherent narrative mosaic. While the experience of grief and upheaval is something universal, I believe that there is something especially vexing for those who have been touched by emotional toxicity. Whether that relationship has been to a parent, a partner, or a professional colleague, the fallout created by the variety of ways they deplete another's sense of self and their relationship to reality carries with it a grief that is almost impossible to communicate to others. Friends and family may encourage such persons to move on, to forgive and forget, or to find healing. Though these are all understandable approaches, they are ill informed and run the risk of further isolating persons who likely have spent far too long taking responsibility for things outside of their sphere of influence. At the heart of such approaches is a belief that recovery from loss follows a predictable, often linear pattern.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' work with dying patients is forever seared into our collective cultural consciousness such that expecting an orderly experience of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has become the assumptive gold standard. Ever since her work caught fire, however, grief theorists have been quietly deconstructing the idea that grief can be contained in such a clean and orderly way. Pauline Boss, in an interview with Krista Tippett, is one such theorist whose research may actually be of use to persons struggling with the grief of toxic relationships. Her life's work has been around the idea of ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is essentially any loss that one experiences without closure or understanding. Her book on this subject is a significant contribution to the study of grief as it tackles losses where someone is physically absent but psychologically present (those who have been missing in action in war, for example) or where persons are physically present but psychologically absent (perhaps someone with Alzheimer's). Applied to toxic relationships, however, ambiguous loss provides a helpful frame within which to observe the dynamics inherent in these painful experiences.

Since there is rarely any closure or understanding after these relationships, persons on the receiving end of the toxicity are pushed off in their boat toward wholeness without a paddle or a sail, forced to trust that the current will eventually take them where they need to be. The grief process is more circuitous and difficult because whether it's due to a relationship with a colleague that has blown up, a living parent who simply cannot offer emotional connection, or a partner who has moved on with chaotic inexplicability, the fact of the other person's presence in absence or absence in presence has no culturally sanctioned rituals by which to mark the loss nor any common social support expectations for those connected to the bereaved. When persons die, we have funerals or memorial services. There is a grave. A headstone to remind the living of the memory of the dead. A physical place to stand or sit. A place to cry. The loved one is gone but not lost. For those who have locked horns with a toxic boss, parent, or partner the grief is often ongoing. Even when separated physically or legally, there is a history that never truly dies, a connection that—while not what we had hoped—pushes our boat back to the shore of our loss through awkward office parties, holiday family gatherings, or co-parenting responsibilities. These regular reminders bring us back to the painful reality that closure may not be possible, at least not in the ways put forward by Hallmark Christmas movies. Instead, people everywhere you look are living with ambiguous loss and with grief that they will carry in different containers for the rest of their lives. This is not to say that such persons can't live full, meaningful, and joy-filled lives in the aftermath of such experiences. To the contrary, some persons may find a wholeheartedness that they would never have cultivated were it not for such losses, but those gains are always in relation to their willingness to embrace the grief within the ambiguity of their loss, each and every time it surfaces.

For those who love such persons, listen to the words of Pauline Boss.

We have to live with loss, clear or ambiguous. And it’s OK. It’s OK to see people who are hurting and just to say something simple. “I’m so sorry.” You really don’t have to say more than that.

Krister White